It was a baptism of fire

It was a baptism of fire

BY CANDIECE KNIGHT
Observer staff reporter
knightc@jamaicaobserver.com

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

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The is the second in a series by our reporters on how they covered the news during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

WHEN I returned home from St Thomas on the night of September 3 last year I headed straight to the bathroom. I peeled off my clothes with my mask still on, got into the shower, and just stood there.

The day had been spent driving to polling stations and speaking with voters in St Thomas, and it had been absolutely brutal. As I tried to wash the aches, pains and fears of COVID-19 contagion away, I knew I had my baptism of fire. But as I sat down to write my final news story for the day, I could not help but think that had it not been for the pandemic, I would not have grown as a journalist as much as I did in 2020.

Pre-COVID-19, I had only written for the Jamaica Observer's All Woman magazine, unless there was a breaking news story and absolutely no one else was available. Though I studied journalism at CARIMAC, I would always jokingly say to my friends in the media that I was not a 'real journalist', and I was quite content writing personality features, and stories about relationships, health, parenting, and so on.

I had no ambitions of reporting breaking news from under bushes as gunshots flew over my head, or from the eye of a hurricane, or wherever our chief editor perched himself to get his stories from when he was a reporter. I enjoyed writing long features and telling stories about people. Politics, press conferences and action-movie scenes were never my thing. Or so I thought.

Then came March and everything changed.

When I left work on Friday the 13th, when schools and daycares were ordered closed, I celebrated the fact that I would be working from home for a few weeks, on the account of me having to care for my then two-year-old son. That celebration was short-lived, as within a few days I realised how difficult it was to work from home while parenting a toddler.

Suddenly, online press briefings that could be replayed became a God-send, as did lengthy WhatsApp voice note interviews, question and answer e-mails, and the mute button on Zoom calls. My colleagues soon learned not to ask 'Why are you here?' when I made a habit of escaping my house once per week to enjoy the silence at the very office I was running away from.

By May, like all other businesses, the Observer began cost-saving measures, which included layoffs. With fewer people on the news desk, more people needed to go get the news. I was assigned to work on the news desk one Sunday each month. I thought, 'OK, Sundays are slow news days, so I can just find a nice story from the week before and submit on Sunday for Monday. No biggie.' And it's exactly that kind of thinking that had me standing in a yard where six men were killed on Sunday morning, noticing something on the ground beside my six-inch heels, only to be told that it was blood.

By the time Prime Minister Andrew Holness rolled out his green Clarks in the summer, I was beginning to enjoy my Sunday adventures, but I still had no desire to cover anything too political. I remember thinking, 'Well, none of those dates are Sundays, so that's none of my business'. And boy did it become my business.

I was assigned to cover St Thomas Western for nomination day, and I remember staying up the night before reading about the political history of the constituency. I was not so much unsure of what to do as I was anxious because I just did not know enough. My very ambitious managing editor also wanted live updates in all formats while on location, and I was also anxious about that.

Nevertheless, I persisted. My colleagues, photographer Norman Thomas, and driver Andre Henry, had enough experience covering elections to make up for my naivety. They also had enough jokes and conversations to make the experience not just a great success, but absolutely fun.

I learned that day why the People's National Party (PNP) and Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) are called parties. I was appalled and intrigued by the number of supporters on both sides who came out to party in the streets in the middle of a pandemic, despite the only significance of the day being that their representatives were going to sign some documents.

I figure I must have done well that day because before nomination day I got this message from my managing editor: “For election day we need to add St Thomas Eastern to Western, which you did nomination day. No need to go into deep risk areas… but we need to get a sense of what it is like to vote while under quarantine. We need to discuss how this will be done safely.”

To my own surprise, I seemed to have caught the election fever on nomination day (thankfully, the only fever I brought home). My main concern was how I would get time to go to my own constituency in St Catherine to vote while working in the other direction. I was even a bit disappointed by the low voter turnout due to the rains on election day, but by late evening I was firing on all engines.

By the end of the day, I had written three stories for the Observer, given two live updates on The Edge 105 FM and created video content to be used on CCN TV6 in Trinidad and Tobago. Rookie where?

So, maybe I won't have a Hurricane Gilbert or a 1980 election story like Vernon, but I covered the 2020 General Election in the pandemic, and later that year damage from the outer bands of hurricanes Eta and Zeta, and that is the story I will tell to a young journalist one day.


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